When is a rebellion not a rebellion?

The Coalition decision to raise VAT was, by some measure, the most controversial aspect of the Government’s first budget. In our recent survey of party members, 42% opposed the move, though 48% endorsed it (however reluctantly) to deal with the deficit.

The party’s MPs have also been wrestling with the issue. The VAT increase was debated on Tuesday night in the Commons – in the end only Colchester’s Bob Russell from the Lib Dems voted against the Government, siding with a Labour amendment.

As Jim Pickard in the FT notes, St Ives MP Andrew George, and four other Lib Dems who had tabled amendments to the Government’s bill – Roger Williams, Mark Williams, David Ward, John Leech – chose not to follow through their threat. Andrew explained his reasoning in the Commons:

The Exchequer Secretary said that he will keep a number of issues under review, which is encouraging. I shall certainly be pressing him and Treasury Ministers to ensure that they do so for the three issues that have been raised in the debate. As I indicated earlier, I intended the amendments to be probing, as they have been, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

He also pointed out Labour’s VAT hypocrisy:

I am rather surprised by [Labour partisanship] on the day when Lord Mandelson let the cat out of the bag on Labour’s defence that they would not have introduced a VAT increase after the election. It must be rather difficult for Labour Members to swallow this evening, given all the butter that is not melting in their mouths.

However, Andrew and his colleagues did abstain on the move to raise VAT. And they were joined in their abstention by Nick Clegg’s two immediate predecessors as leader, Ming Campbell and Charles Kennedy, as the BBC reports:

The coalition won all VAT-related votes but key Lib Dem backbenchers abstained in some of them or did not vote.

Former leader Charles Kennedy did not take part in any of the votes while his successor as leader Sir Menzies Campbell abstained on a number of opposition amendments.

The government saw off calls in Parliament to scrap the VAT rise or to delay it pending a review on its impact on certain groups but not without concerns being expressed by Lib Dem members.

The coalition won a vote on whether to approve the VAT rise by 321 votes to 246, a majority of 75.

But Mr Russell voted against the move and eight other Lib Dem MPs, including Andrew George, either abstained or did not vote at all.

However, Charles has denied any suggestion of rebellion, according to his local paper:

The MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber was absent when MPs decided on proposals to delay or limit the 2.5% rise announced by Chancellor George Osborne in one of the most unpopular parts of his emergency package. … North East Fife Lib Dem MP Sir Menzies Campbell was also absent for three of the votes on Tuesday but joined the rest of the Lib Dem coalition approving the rise. …

But a spokeswoman in Mr Kennedy’s office made it clear last night that he had “several prior engagements”, and had apologised to deputy chief whip Alistair Carmichael for failing to obtain approval for his absence.

So not a rebellion at all, then. Glad that’s settled.

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13 Comments

  • Anthony Aloysius St 15th Jul '10 - 7:50pm

    “The VAT increase was debated on Tuesday night in the Commons – in the end only Colchester’s Bob Russell from the Lib Dems voted against the Government, siding with a Labour amendment. “

    Didn’t Mike Hancock also vote against the government? He was certainly reported as having done so.

  • 42% of the membership against it – and only one MP?

    No rebellion – at the cost of being at odds with almost half the membership

    not really something to boast about

  • Anthony Aloysius St 15th Jul '10 - 8:59pm

    Mark

    Thanks. The words ‘Hancock’ and ‘Rebel’ do have a distinguished association …

  • Stuart Mitchell 15th Jul '10 - 9:21pm

    “He also pointed out Labour’s VAT hypocrisy:”

    You mean the shocking revelation that Gordon Brown *vetoed a suggested VAT rise*, and later pledged not to increase VAT after the election?

    If only the Lib Dems practised hypocrisy of that kind.

  • “So not a rebellion at all, then. Glad that’s settled.”

    You don’t actually believe that surely!

  • David Boothroyd 15th Jul '10 - 11:03pm

    Charles Kennedy’s comment reminds me of what Peter Cook once said when invited to come to some event he evidently thought almost as ghastly as ratting on en election promise: “Oh dear, I find I’m watching television that night”.

  • matthew fox 16th Jul '10 - 7:06am

    It seems some Libdems are trying to rewrite history when it comes to VAT.

    Vince Cable described the Libdems campaign against the Conservative Party’s VAT position as ” political point scoring ”

    If the Libdems are the party of empty gestures, any attack on Labour Vat record is just a pointless.

  • Andrew Suffield 16th Jul '10 - 9:46am

    any attack on Labour Vat record is just a pointless.

    And so is Labour’s attack on VAT, which would be his actual point.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Jul '10 - 10:40am

    The rebellion shows why a coalition with Labour etc was not viable. In a coalition with the Tories, we can afford for the Liberal Democrats to show unhappiness by a few MPs voting against the government. There would have been no room for this in the alternative coalition, a particular problem given that it relied on various fourth party members for its tiny majority.

  • Matthew,

    Not sure I entirely agree with your logic here. After all, any single party government is also a form of coalition which will have its internal rebels. Tony Blair headed a coalition with a thumping majority, so his rebels frequently “showed unhappiness” without actually threatening his position or getting much influence over his policy. John Major headed a coalition with a tiny majority, and his “b*stards” on the Eurosceptic wing rebelled to much greater effect, because their position gave them more power.

    A downside of a Labour-led coalition, as you point out, would be the excessive influence of small fourth parties. An advantage would however have been the greater leverage for ourselves.

    I grant you that a Labour rainbow coalition would have suffered from too much disunity, but, now I think we’re seing the Cameron-Clegg show suffering from too much unity!

    It’s good to see “the Liberal Democrats to show unhappiness by a few MPs voting against the government”, but are we going to gain adequate concessions this way, I wonder?

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